How to Drive the Tail of the Dragon and Have a Badass Camping Trip

Unless you’re local to them, the “roads you must drive before you die” regularly featured in listicles don’t often actually merit the expense of a road trip. It’s just not practical to spend a day traveling to some remote road that takes 20 minutes to drive through when you can just pay a couple hundred bucks to run a track day an hour or two away, then sleep in your own bed that night. For those of us of modest means, there’s gotta be something else to do at the destination to make such a trip worthwhile. I found out quite by accident that the Tail of the Dragon is one such place, even if you have a minivan, a toddler, and a wife prone to carsickness.

I’ll start out with a caveat: You must be willing to unplug from the Internet and enjoy not having electricity or running water. We couldn’t even get cell service in the nearby town (Robbinsville, population: 750), though there are a few free WiFi spots. Fortunately for some, a tent is not required for this trip.
That’s not to say my wife and I are too soft for tent camping. We’ve done plenty, including back-country camping on an island accessible only by canoe. But vacationing with a 2-year-old, we wanted some peace of mind and the little bit of separation that a two-room cabin can offer. Bad weather makes miserable work of tent setup and takedown.
We had fallen in love with the Great Smoky Mountains after swinging through a short portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway several years ago, so we hunted for a cabin in lower Appalachia. Most cabins are privately owned and operated, and are simply expensive hotels where you get your own wooden building. They’re often a couple hundred bucks a night and are nowhere near a real outdoors experience.
I’m not Mr. Moneybags and I love the National Park Service, so I searched listings on I hit the jackpot with Cheoah Point Campground in the middle of Nantahala National Forest. There are campsites with and without facilities, and also two cabins with electric light, a power outlet outside, and that’s it. (We used the power outlets only to charge our phones before the trip home.) There are, mercifully, bathrooms at the campground with warm-water showers. The cabins overlook Lake Santeetlah, cost $35 a night, and book up way in advance, so start planning now.
These cabins have direct access to the lake, though we didn’t bring our canoe this time. People do take powerboats on the lake, so it may not be this serene and quiet in the morning if you’re going in high tourist season.
It wasn’t until after we booked our nights that I remembered: Isn’t Tail of the Dragon right around there? Sure enough, it’s a mere 20 minutes away, but that in itself turned out to be unnecessary. That’s because all the roads in the area are just so. Damn. Good.
Take, for example, Joyce Kilmer Road, which circles Lake Santeetlah to the north and leads you from the campground to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest—one of the last patches of virgin forest in the U.S., and home to some of the biggest trees you’ll see this side of the Mississippi.
Virgin forest means these trees were never cut down by human hands, so some of them are simply huge.
The Kilmer trail loops are easy enough, though you’ll want to keep an eye on little ones. There are steep dropoffs in some parts. If you’re by yourself or with more adventurous, older kids, there are connected trails with tons of beautiful scenery and challenging climbs. You could spend days. The Appalachian Trail also cuts through Nantahala National Forest.
After you’ve had your fill of that, take a left out of the Joyce Kilmer entrance and climb the road to the Maple Springs Overlook, where you can ghost the SCCA’s Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb. The hillclimb course runs for two of those five miles to the overlook point at the top. You’ll climb 1200 feet just between the start and finish lines, which are marked year-round. If you’re adventurous incredibly stupid, you’ll have brought your stopwatch so you can set your best time crash and ruin your vacation.
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If you’re smart, you’ll realize that you can have plenty of fun on these roads, often without violating the 45 or 35 mph speed limit. No, really. The curves continue seemingly forever and are often so tight that you’re exploring grip limits even if you cross the double yellow to take full advantage of the road.
It can be dead-silent at night, and light pollution is almost nil. Be aware, though, that this is not an unknown location. It’s popular for camping, hiking, and driving enthusiasts. On the weekend, the gas station in Robbinsville is full of Subarus, Evos, Miatas, ‘speed3s, S2000s, you name it.
But come in springtime for the mild-to-warm days and cool nights, stay during the week to avoid the crowds, and go visit as many points, gaps, dams and overlooks as you can. If you’ve got the time, take a day trip to the Smokies and visit Clingman’s Dome, hike down to Andrews Bald, cross the North Carolina-Tennessee line at Newfound gap, and pick up some native-made tourist kitsch in Cherokee.
You can visit the Tail of the Dragon anytime from your campsite and be back in just over an hour, but the sports car, motorcycle, pickup truck and family-hauler traffic through Deals Gap actually takes some of the fun out of it. Driving the Dragon is a necessity only if you must check that item off your list. There are plenty of roads in the area that you’ll find just as fun. The scenery is wonderful, the silence and solitude are energizing, and every road in between is a thrill. These roads are satisfying to drive, yes, even in a four-cylinder minivan on stock suspension.
Well, in the right minivan, anyway. A stickshift helps.
[Photos copyright 2016 Alan Cesar | Hooniverse]

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  1. BigRedCaveTroll Avatar

    There are some awesome roads in Western NC and Eastern TN. Some of the roads around the Bat Cave area are especially bonkers, to the point that I’ve given myself motion sickness on them.

  2. alex Avatar

    I drove the Dragon back in about 2003. I had a newish 2002 Subaru WRX and drove down to Atlanta to visit a buddy. He had recently bought a 2002 Ford Focus SVT and had already driven up to the Dragon. Of course, we got up at 6 one morning and made the drive up to Robinsville. It was in the middle of the week and the traffic was really light. We each took two passes in anger. Most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.
    Almost never got out of second gear, quite a bit of brake fade near the end of each run. Used about 8 gal of gas to go about 44 miles. Actually had fuel pickup issues on the last run.
    The area is stunningly beautiful. About 30 minutes away from the beginning of the Dragon, we passed the actual dumpster where Atlanta Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph was caught only a few months before. Also, not far away is the dam that Harrison Ford jumped off of in the movie “The Fugitive.”
    If you do get a chance to go, enjoy.

  3. JayP Avatar

    I grew up in the Tri Cities… about as far northeast in TN as you’ll get before falling into another state.
    Except for the highways and newer roads, most of the roads wind around the foothills. My drive to school could be a mini Tail.
    I never new what I had until I moved to DFW and all the friggin’ roads are straight!

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      I learned to drive in Illinois, and then moved to Florida. All I’ve ever known are flat, straight roads. But at least in Illinois, we got a couple of months where weather made the driving more entertaining. Going through the mountains is a rare treat for me.

    2. Alff Avatar

      Yep. Had the same experience relocating from Seattle to KC. It was a major disappointment, having bought the Spider a week before the move.

      1. PaulE Avatar

        From KC, I always found the backroads between Sedalia and Lake of the Ozarks to be some good driving, or as good as one’s going to find anywhere near you. I’m sure there’s plenty more good drives to be had through central and southern MO.

    3. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      I never new what I had until I moved to DFW and all the friggin’ roads are straight!
      You’re not lyin’, dude.
      I’m born-and-raised Dallas, and it’s painful up here for motorcycling. The hill country isn’t bad, but unless you’re doing Ironbutt-style riding, it’s a bit too far for a day trip, though we’ve done it.
      Then, in 1997, winter…facepalm…we moved to Evergreen, Colorado.
      Oh. My. Gawd.
      I’d never had bike tires which wore evenly from shoulder-to-shoulder! I mean, my commute was an absolute blast, if I wanted it to be.
      Unfortunately, I’m back in Cowtown, but desperately looking for work in Denver, again.

  4. dukeisduke Avatar

    Nice Wolfenstein 3D reference re: the license plate.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Doom, actually. Glad you spotted it. 🙂

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Was it not in Wolfenstein first? Man, that was a long time ago (the software was on 3-1/2″ floppies).
        Also, “You got the shotgun!”, and hacks like IDKFA.

        1. Papa Van Twee Avatar
          Papa Van Twee

          Looks like it was Doom first. Wolfenstein isn’t even mentioned.

  5. cap'n fast Avatar
    cap’n fast

    gotta have some time to go back to the “mountians” back east again. the thrill of cruising along behind a clapped out caravan or two spewing burnt engine oil smoke and bits of trash being flung out car windows. such memories. the roads are the best taxpayers can buy. true. the scenery is decent. come out west to rocky mountian national park. we got a road for you. especially when the cloud deck comes down and you have to have a spotter out in front of you so you don’t miss a turn. long way down. no guard rail. great fun. small children love it. carsick wives, not so much. cabins and campsites every where. take us6 to blackhawk for some real gambling. oh. the stanley hotel is quite close. marvelous place but don’t mind the ghosts.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      It was a long enough drive from Florida to the Smokies. I don’t have three days to drive out west, and a toddler certainly won’t tolerate that much time in a car.

  6. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
    dead_elvis, inc.

    I had the chance to chase the Dragon on a major motorcycle trip in October 2008. Turns out that midweek in October is an excellent, uncrowded time to drive it – so much so that I turned around and happily did it twice more. Got caught behind a slow cluster of Corvettes briefly, but they waved me by after about 2 minutes.
    If I’m lucky enough to run it again, I’d rather be on a supermoto instead of a porky Kawasaki wearing hard luggage. And as mentioned, there are some other amazing roads in this part of the country!

  7. Douche_McGee Avatar

    I’m heading to the Smoky’s in a week and a half for my honeymoon – my wife has allowed us one day to make it to Deal’s Gap -a probably 2 hour drive, but it will all be great roads. She wants to see the Fugitive Dam, I just want a Killboy pic of my FiST 🙂
    I’ve been down there 4 times, all in Miatas. So many amazing roads that you can have a blast without dealing with the traffic/occasional cops on 129. With my wife in the passenger seat, odds are I won’t really be able to go past the speed limit on any roads without her screaming or getting scared 🙂

  8. Sjalabais Avatar

    Great photos! On trips like this I tend to end up in the same bind every time. Do I want to
    A) Take in the view. Drive slowly, stop frequently.
    B) Enjoy the road and the car, and also get past that RV. And that one. And that one.
    C) Get to whatever my destination may be, even if it’s basically several days drive ahead.
    It’s hard to unify these ambitions in a meaningful way.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      The faster you drive (B), the more time you’ll have for A), and the sooner you’ll reach C).
      I know folks that do the atlanterhavsveien in an ambitious attitude after kl.21, how are chances to do trollstienene without crashing into the bicycles on the rear of an RV?

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        From my experience, ambition is limited to pre- and after-season drives on most of these scenic roads. I got up at 6 to do the Icefields Parkway, but ended up stopping a lot anyway.

  9. Ross Ballot Avatar
    Ross Ballot

    The photos are killer and the story is great as well!

  10. Papa Van Twee Avatar
    Papa Van Twee

    I got to drive the Dragon in 2011. I was in a 2001 Saturn SW2 with an auto. I also had my wife and then 2 year old in tow. Still loved it.I never had anyone trying to pass me, and a couple people who were sightseeing actually let us pass. If I ever make my way down in that area again I’d drive it again.

  11. PaulE Avatar

    I got to drive the Tail five years ago in a friend’s BMW Z4 (2.5/5-speed). Great, if not epic drive, at and even below the speed limit. Early-mid-April during a weekday was a terrific time to make the drive–fairly squid and WRX-free. However, I found the nearby Cherohala Skyway to be equally enjoyable, far less stressful and very scenic, over its 40+ mile length.

  12. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

    I drove it back in 2006, I think, but did so in my ’99 Suckazuki Grand Lametara, on oversize BFG A/Ts.
    A neat road, though a squid magnet. We were there in the early summer, most likely.
    As goods as it is, and as much as people rave about it, the Colorado front range is the mother lode of usually empty, incredibly twisty roads.
    My personal faves there (Denver-area) are still county road (IIRC) 344, which is right north of Buena Vista. It turns to gravel at the top, but a huge turn-around is there, so no big deal.
    Actually passed a red NSX going up, once. We were on the Thin-Air TT rally, and there was a bonus at the summit. The guy looked at us like we were nuts when he caught up at the top, turned around, and went back down.
    That road doesn’t go anywhere, and the campground up there had a horible mudslide last year, so it should be, effectively, a private road because nobody will use it.
    The other, and this made commuting to the DTC almost enjoyable was in JeffCo, South Turkey Creek Drive.
    Great condition, lightly used, but man, it was a peg-scraping wet dream!
    Bad day at work? Take the alternate route home (instead of 285). Arrive home smiling and happy as can be.